Organic rice: an export product that we consume very little here
10 Jul 2021
Christian Martínez developed a company that sells to the world and develops special varieties for local restaurants. However, in our country the general public knows little about the subject.
In our daily diet, rice is not a great protagonist in the formation of the dish. Annual consumption in Argentina is low, the quality products offered by the market are few, and the lack of knowledge on the subject, quite large. Like all products of the land, the quality of rice is related to the care of the crop, the selection of the grain and a precise attention during the drying stage. Christian Martínez created a company, Pampa’s Organic, which produces and exports organic rice and grains, and as part of a dissemination and education program on the subject, develops varieties with renowned local chefs.
“Around 2010 we began to investigate, produce and export rice, but the big problem we had was the smell of smoke.” Until ten years ago, most of the local companies used wood for the drying rooms, because it was very cheap. It was from this question that Martínez began the change.
“In the world, rice grains are dried by combustion of the rice husk or by gas. In Argentina, most use firewood, because in the producing areas there is so much thinning that the firewood is practically free. The problem is that the smoke remains inside the drying oven and smokes the rice, something that we Argentines did not notice. But we had to change the system because they said it was smoked and they didn’t buy it from me. So I discovered a mill with an indirect dryer that did not generate odor; I found it on Google, it said “odorless rice.” Today, with those of the mill we are almost partners, because they work specialties, they separate the batches of rice according to the variety, which allows me to divide and know the traceability of each batch. As for organic, another issue was that it reached its destination without insects, and in Thailand they taught me a system of fumigation with carbon dioxide where oxygen is removed from the bags so that the eggs do not remain dormant or develop when it rises temperature.
In many parts of the world the cultivation is done in pools that are flooded. How is it grown here?
The biggest investment that needs to be made is leveling the field to allow it to flood for a hundred days. Once the seedling is born, you open the water from the highest part so that it goes down. Rice is a very noble product, you have to be a very bad farmer or have a very serious problem to lose all the money. It’s not like soybeans, if it doesn’t rain, everything will die. The best production areas are in the east center of Entre Ríos, and in Curuzú Cuatiá and Mercedes, Corrientes. In Entre Ríos, the climate is a bit cooler, which limits vermin and weeds and makes organic work easier. When we tried to do it in Chaco it was a disaster, because there were all the pests you can think of and the birds ate 50 tons. After ten years, we found the most suitable producers with a lot of commitment. Not everyone can do it, since being organic is more difficult; They do not come with the magic recipe for glyphosate and it has a lot of bureaucracy, not only locally but internationally, they come from Japan, Europe and the United States to control.
Besides the smoke and the absence of agrochemicals, what makes them different.
Argentina’s rice regulation is one of the worst in the world, because it does not protect the consumer. According to the code, the rice with four zeros must have a maximum of twenty percent broken grains, which for me that should be discard. And the five zeros, which is the best, fifteen percent of matches. Those rices, I sell them abroad as rice for flour, nobody accepts them to eat. Here they are sold to the public. The problem with using that quality of rice is that when it comes to preparing it, twenty percent will be done earlier, it will release more starch and the cooking will be uneven. Worldwide, the maximum number of matches allowed is between two and four percent.
In other words, they are selling us ten percent of the product that is discarded, at least for cooking.
It is a rice that is worth less than half that of a good one, but the other problem is that the industry penalizes the producer and pays him less for the broken rice, but the consumer is put in the same container.
The most rice-growing countries consume about 150 kilos per year; our country does not reach eight. Martínez believes that, in general, we do not recognize the different varieties and their culinary uses. One of the actions carried out by Pampa’s Organic is to educate on the subject, and together with Emilio Garip, from the Buenos Aires restaurant Oviedo, they are on a crusade against parboiling and offering the best of each variety in different types of preparations.
“Parboiled is a glassy, sealed grain that does not absorb flavors. It is nutritious, but does not exchange flavor with the medium. On the other hand, the reserve we make with Emilio, or the one used for risotto or paella, is characterized by different degrees of amylose. Some time ago, Emilio introduced me to the people of Galo, the famous Italian rice brand, and they taught me how to make a reserva arroz, a carnaroli that is kept for a year or two resting in its shell. During that time it dries a bit and when cooked it grows and absorbs much more. Emilio used it for the Baron B Grand Prix ”, says Martínez.
Should each rice be used for a different preparation?
That distinction is given by amylose, because the more it has, the less flavors the grain will absorb. That is why the parboiled does not absorb anything. Basmati rice, typical of Indian cuisine, is one of the best in the world, and although it does not absorb it, it is a very rich rice; like the Japanese with which gohan is made. Then there are the rices with a medium level of amylose, which absorb the cooking broths, such as the carnaroli in risotto, the bomba for paella, or the sushi one.
What is the difference between the blank and the integral?
It is the same different processed rice. Rice has a husk; when removing it, the integral remains; but if I want it white, which is more culinary, I pass it through a polishing machine. The whole grain is left with the bran, in English it is called brand, and it remains brown. We are the only ones who make wholemeal carnaroli, a giant grain rice and very tasty.
What’s the matter with arsenic and rice?
One of the problems with rice is that it absorbs arsenic from the soil. Many countries have regulated the maximum amount of arsenic that rice can have. We have been monitoring the issue for five years and we were able to understand which varieties and forms of irrigation make it more or less absorb arsenic. We discovered that the more kilometers the water travels, the more arsenic is transported from the soil, and that is why we modify the course of the water and choose the areas. With that research, we were able to produce a rice that is for baby food. The fact that it has arsenic does not mean that rice is going to hurt you, but if you eat rice every day and the issue is not controlled, it is not very healthy. One thing we found was that white rice has less arsenic than brown rice, because when you remove much of the husk, 40 percent goes away. Likewise, in Argentina the fields have little arsenic.
Which one do you sell the most locally?
We sell a lot of yamaní, which is famous, but nobody knows who gave it that name, because there is no such variation. It is a Japanese rice, of the koshihikari type, which may have arrived through Paraguay through the Japanese communities.
What was the weirdest rice, the one that surprised you the most?
A green rice, made with bamboo chlorophyll, in China. But the richest is basmati. Now we are making a black one which is amazing, because it has a lot of antioxidants. It has the same characteristics as blueberries, and in some places they call it riceberry.
After ten years of exporting, how do you see the world behavior in rice consumption?
There is a very strong demand for organic products in the United States, Germany, France and China, which is now fourth in the world and previously did not enter the organic search register. In general, if it is organic rice, increase consumption; if it is rice because it is without TACC, it increases; if it is rice because it is vegan or plant based, increase. The rice we offer falls into many of the most sought after categories. The truth is that if in a vegan diet you combine rice with the other organic legumes that we produce, you will have a product without TACC and with the necessary amino acids for the body. You do not replace meat, because it lacks iron, but it is an almost perfect protein.
High-quality ingredients have long arrived in restaurants. Do they also ask for better rice?
They got more demanding. Not so much for the organic, although they put it on the menu, but because they are interested in that we customize them according to the amount of broken grains or almost no matches, such as the reservation I made for Oviedo, or the sushi one for La Mar. We love them those challenges, because we learn a lot and come up with ideas.
Why are some vacuum packed? Does the rice expire?
The vacuum removes the air so it does not rust and quality is maintained, and bugs are avoided. White rice lasts a year, but we like to pack the whole wheat every six months, because as the bran has oils, after a certain time it begins to oxidize and can acquire a rancid smell. In the supermarket you have to look at the date of the integral. With the common there is not so much problem, because they are pure carbohydrates, they do not have oils, they do not age and you can have more than a year saved.
Does each rice need a different amount of water and cooking?
The Japanese say that the same rice, from one year to the next, must be cooked differently, with more or less water. They cook it with just the right amount of water to scoop and serve. Something quite difficult to achieve. A brown rice needs three times more water, whereas the short one or the basmati, can be cooked without straining.